In mid-February, 13-year-old Robert Ahmasuk was returning from a hunting trip on skis with his dog, Lola, near Gunsight Mountain off the Glenn Highway.
Just 50 yards from the parking lot, Lola, a 4-year-old husky mix, started acting anxious and darted off the trail.
That’s when Ahmasuk and his mom heard a yelp.
“I went over there first and I was like, ‘Oh, crap. Lola’s in a trap. Mom, get over here. Help me!’” said Ahmasuk, who lives in Anchorage most of the year.
They attempted to free Lola but knew their time was limited. Despite years of experience trapping and hunting themselves, they weren’t able to release Lola’s neck from the heavy trap, said Joni Spiess, Ahmasuk’s mom.
“Had we been able to release her from the trap, I’m not sure that she would have survived. I believe her neck was broken by the time we got there,” she said.
A passing snowmachiner eventually helped them get the trap off of Lola’s neck, but at that point, she was already dead.
The loss was devastating to Ahmasuk.
He and his family said they were surprised to learn trapping so close to trailheads — with a trap designed to kill its targets — is 100% legal.
“It’s kind of stupid,” Ahmasuk said.
The trap that killed Lola, a Conibear 330, is a type of body-grip trap that some advocates argue are more humane, since they’re designed to kill animals relatively quickly.
Foothold traps, in contrast, are designed to holds animals alive until a hunter can arrive to kill or release it. If the trapper doesn’t check foothold traps regularly, an animal might freeze to death.
Brad Christiansen, president of the Southcentral Chapter of the Alaska Trappers Association, said once an animal hits the trigger of a Conibear trap, the 10-inch jaws snap on its neck.
“That’s usually it for them. There’s not really any struggle or anything like that,” he said.
According to Ahmasuk and Spiess, Lola died less than 5 minutes after the trap snapped on her neck.
Spiess learned trapping skills from her ex-husband in Nome, and said, at one point, she would have been able to remove the trap quickly. But though she and Ahmasuk are outdoor enthusiasts, they couldn’t remove the trap on their own.
There have been other documented cases of dogs killed in Conibear traps in Alaska, most recently in an illegally set trap in Anchorage in 2017.
But it’s not clear exactly how many dogs have died. There’s no central database tracking incidents of pets getting caught in traps in Alaska.
Nicole Schmitt, head of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance which advocates for more regulation on trapping, said that creates uninformed debates on the issue — leading to inertia from those with decision-making power at the Board of Game.
“There’s been about 15 to 20 proposals in the past 10 years to the Board of Game, proposing various solutions,” she said. “They’ve all failed.”
Her group is starting a “Map the Trap” project to understand where incidents are occurring, such as pets getting caught in traps. They’re soliciting stories from the public in hopes of putting together a database.
“The intention behind the project is to understand where these incidents are happening, both geographically, if they’re next to trails, or roads, pull-offs, things like that, and what kinds of traps people are having problems with, so that we can try and advise local solutions to that problem,” she said.
So far, they’ve received about 30 reports from the public about trapping incidents, since the project began last September. Lola’s is the only confirmed report of a death.
With limited data that still hasn’t been published, it’s hard to make assumptions about what kind of regulations would help.
The trap that killed Lola was set legally, though recreators and trappers agree it was set unethically, — too close to the trailhead. Ahmasuk, his mom and Lola were within Matanuska-Susitna Borough, where dogs can be off leash if they are in “competent voice control.”
The Alaska Trappers Association recommends not setting traps within 150 feet of high-use areas and trails. Spiess estimated the trap was about 50 feet from the trail.
Ahmasuk’s stepdad posted the details of Lola’s death on Facebook. The post was shared more than 800 times and garnered over 600 comments, most of them from recreators calling for more trapping regulation.
Most trappers fight vehemently against the idea of more regulation, arguing the best solution to the rare problem of dog deaths is to remind trappers of their responsibility to act ethically.
“When you buy your trapping license, you’re saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to be responsible.’ And that’s the mentality we need to push in everybody,” said Christiansen, with the Southcentral trappers.
He was contacted after Lola’s death and put up signs to remind trappers to observe the ethics of avoiding high-use areas. He also left a note for the person who set the trap that killed Lola, asking them to get in touch. So far, he said, he hasn’t heard back.
But Christiansen and other trappers say incidents with pets are rare — and deaths are even rarer.
Ahmasuk’s stepdad, Ben Spiess, is preparing draft regulations to submit to the Board of Game. He wants the board to institute a setback requirement for large surface Conibear traps from roadways. To advocates like Schmitt, of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, that seems sensible.
“I mean, goodness, you can’t shoot a firearm except for defense of life and property a quarter-mile from campgrounds,” she said. “So why can we lay Conibear traps?”
But many trappers argue such regulations are a slippery slope.
“It starts with a little regulation here, a little regulation there, and a little bit more there. And next thing, you know, we’re like California, where trapping is not allowed at all,” said Christiansen.
For the thousands of trappers who buy a license, Christiansen said, extra cash from selling furs from trapping can mean the difference between buying Christmas gifts or not. And he says the rich tradition of trapping, which contributed to the mapping of the American West by European settlers, and continues to be used to manage wildlife populations, is under threat.
Ahmasuk, who grew up learning the trade from his father in Nome, doesn’t want to lose Alaska’s trapping traditions either. But after losing his dog, he thinks it’s time for more regulations.